A Brief History of Fort Defiance

For many years during the occupation of this region by the Spanish and Mexican governments the history of the Navajos had been one of successively broken treaties. When, in 1846, our country proclaimed its sovereignty over the territory of the Southwest, military expeditions were made into the land of the Navajos and still more treaties followed; these, like their predecessors, were unsuccessful.

During the months of August and September of the year 1849 Brevet Colonel John M. Washington led an expedition into the Navajo country as far as Canyon de Chelley. On his return, after camping near the so-called Kit Carson Monument, he passed through the deep, narrow gorge that pierces the mountain flanking the west side of present-day Fort Defiance. Emerging from the canyon, he entered the bowl-like depression which is further enclosed to the north and east by rock cliffs.

A Navajo Family near Fort Defiance, 1873.

A Navajo Family near Fort Defiance, 1873.

Known to the Navajos as Tsehotso (Meadow within the Rocks), this spot had been a favorite rendezvous for the Indians in years past. Springs at the farther end of the canyon gave promise of an abundant supply of water which could be channelled by gravity; the site offered convenient passage to the natural stronghold of the Navajos which was Canyon de Chelley, in the very heart of the Navajo country. For these reasons it must have been recognized as a strategic point from which the government hoped to restrain the troublesome raiders, if necessary, and to curb their marauding attacks upon other tribes, and distant Mexican settlements as far east as the Rio Grande Valley.

The warlike activities of the Navajos and raids upon their neighbors continued as before; two years later Uncle Sam’s patience snapped and he decided upon drastic action in order to bring the Navajo under control. All garrisoned fort was to be located on the site at the mouth of Canyon Bonito and Col. Edwin V. Sumner hints as to what further steps might be taken when he wrote: “If this post does not put a stop to the Navajo depredations, nothing will do it but their entire extermination.”

No sooner was work begun in 1851 on the construction of adobe, stone and log facilities than the Navajos sought to thwart the military plan to prevent what they considered an encroachment upon their domain. Despite their defiant efforts the project was completed; hence the name, Fort Defiance, which became the first military post in what is now Arizona and the most remote in the United States.

At this same time a civil agent for the Navajos was appointed, but both he and his successor were headquartered at Jemez, New Mexico, more than 100 miles to the East. The first agent to reside among the Navajos was Captain Henry Linn Dodge, who established the agency away from the military post near the eastern approach to Washington Pass. Dodge has been acclaimed an excellent agent and “the right man to deal with the military at Fort Defiance as well as with the Navajos whom he understood and with whom he sympathized.” Unfortunately he held this position only about three years, having met his death on November 15, 1856 at the hands of Apache Indians who ambushed him while on a hunting trip with Navajo friends.

Navajo mother and children, 1873.

Navajo mother and children, 1873.

Captain Dodge’s years as agent were marked with calm and peace, but less than two years after his death Navajo hostilities broke out anew. On April 30, 1860, at about 1:00 a.m., a throng of Navajos, variously estimated at between 1,000 and 3,000, boldly swooped down from the surrounding heights in a well-planned attack upon Fort Defiance itself, which was garrisoned with only 150 soldiers. Alerted by sentinels beforehand, the soldiers were prepared and the attackers were driven back over the hills with a loss of at least 20 men, among them one of their war chiefs; one soldier was killed, a four-inch steel arrow head piercing his heart, and three others were wounded in the assault which lasted two hours.

When the Civil War broke out the following year, Fort Defiance was abandoned. It was rebuilt in 1863 and named Fort Canby. By now Uncle Sam had lost his patience completely and the Indians were bluntly informed that the days of treaty making were over. Soon the fort became a concentration camp for Navajos who were to be rounded up by Colonel (Kit) Carson in preparation for their “long walk” to Fort Sumner. It was felt that it would be less expensive to place the Navajos on a reservation and feed them than to fight them. In the spring of 1864, most of the members of the tribe were taken into captivity and the fort was again abandoned.

Group of Navajo near Fort Defiance, 1870s.

Group of Navajo near Fort Defiance, 1870s.

After four years of bitter experiences with the government’s unsuccessful attempt at making farmers of them, the Navajos were permitted to return to their old habitats, following a treaty entered into on June 1, 1868. Old Fort Defiance was once more reoccupied and its original name restored. No longer a military installation, it now became the central U.S. administrative headquarters for the entire tribe and was dependent solely upon Fort Wingate, 40 miles distant, for military protection.

At the turn of the century Fort Defiance became one of five agencies on the reservation. In 1935 these were consolidated when a general superintendency was established at Window Rock. Today, with no vestiges of the old fort remaining, Fort Defiance has the status of a sub-agency, with four others, subject to a General Superintendent at Window Rock and an Area Director in Gallup, New Mexico.

The Mission at Fort Defiance

When the first friars in modern times, Frs. Juvenal Schnorbus and Anselm Weber, entered the Navajo mission field in October, 1898, they immediately concerned themselves with a study of the difficult native language and made a beginning at reducing it to writing. In the fall of 1900 Frs. Leopold Ostermann and Berard Haile joined them in this painstaking project which, under the editorship of Fr. Berard, produced valuable scientific publications on the language, beliefs, customs and ceremonialism of the Navajo.

In their search for the desired information they contacted natives from outlying areas of the reservation and soon gained the friendship of many whose children were attending the Fort Defiance government school. With permission of the proper authorities it was soon arranged that the friars conduct religion classes twice a week, with additional Sunday school on alternate Sunday evenings. The program which permitted non-denominational instructions only was inaugurated by Fr. Leopold on April 3, 1902.

The first Baptism and First Holy Communion Class with Fr. Anselm Weber, 1912.

The first Baptism and First Holy Communion Class with Fr. Anselm Weber, 1912.

On March 12, 1910 Commissioner of Indian Affairs, R. G. Valentine, promulgated rules and regulations providing for sectarian instructions for children whose parents requested affiliation with a designated church. Fr. Anselm conducted the first Catholic catechism class of 198 pupils in the assembly hall on February 7, 1911 and this schedule was observed until the time of the dedication of the church at Fort Defiance in 1915. At the invitation of Agent Levingood Mass had been said at Fort Defiance for the first time by Fr. Leopold on September 7, 1902, with all pupils and employees attending.

In the summer of 1911 Fr. Egbert Fischer was assigned to this mission. By April 28, 1912 he had a class of 22 pupils pre- pared for baptism and First Holy Communion. These ceremonies were held in the chapel of St. Michael Indian school, as also were similar festivities in the ensuing years, with only two exceptions.

On June 16, 1912 Most Reverend Bishop Henry Granion, Tucson confirmed a class of 89 in the assembly hall, following a Solemn High Mass, celebrated by Fr. Egbert, who was assisted by Frs. Anselm and Leopold as deacon and subdeacon, Fr. Berard acting as deacon of honor to the Bishop.

On January 19, 1913 the assembly hall was the scene of the first Catholic wedding, that of John Watchmen, Agency interpreter, and Emma Bia, Fr. Egbert officiating. Four Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and 18 pupils of St. Michael School formed the choir for the impressive ceremonies. To further enhance this “event” Superintendent Peter Paquette, provided a banquet to which all 53 government employees were invited.

Fr. Egbert with members of the Fort Defiance mission.

Fr. Egbert with members of the Fort Defiance mission.

From April 28, 1912 to April 13, 1913 the total number of baptisms administered was 145 and now the need of a more suitable and convenient place for religious services was becoming more and more apparent. The assembly hall was being used as a school, recreation room and meeting place for social and business gatherings and was not the proper locale for the celebration of Mass or other religious functions. Besides, transportation of large groups of children to St. Michaels, eight miles distant, for baptism and First Communion was increasingly becoming a problem.

It was therefore decided to erect a church on a tract of land for which Fr. Anselm was negotiating with the Santa Fe Pacific Railway Co. The north boundary of this property, embracing almost 40 acres, adjoined the south line of the original Treaty Reservation which runs through the old site of Fort Defiance. Fr. Anselm obtained a deed in January.

Incidentally, this land had been ceded to the railroad company by virtue of the Enabling Act of 1866 which authorized the granting of all odd-numbered sections of each township for a distance of 40 miles on either side of its proposed right of way. Through the eastern portion of this tract runs the deep and narrow Bonito Creek, leaving only a small area that might be used for a building site.

Whilst no reports or records have been discovered with reference to the construction of the church, except a brief mention of the fact that progress in the work had been interrupted for a time due to cold weather, it may be assumed that the work was begun during he latter part of 1914. Fr. Egbert had previously visited parishes in the midwest where he gave sermons and lectures with stereopticon slides, soliciting building funds. By the fall of 1915 the structure was completed. It measures 40 x 80 feet and has a seating capacity for 300 people Construction is of native sand stone with stained glass windows, most of which were donated by Indians and others living on the Reservation. On each side of the sanctuary are two small rooms, one serving as sacristy and the other, for almost forty years serving as living quarters and office of the padre in charge.


Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church.


The solemn dedication of the church of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament took place on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1915. At 9:30 a.m. Most Rev. Henry Granjon, Bishop of Tucson, began the dedication ceremonies after which he sang a Solemn Pontifical Mass. He was assisted by Fr. Anselm Weber as Assistant Priest and Fr. Fridolin Schuster, of Gallup and Father George Marx, pastor of St. Joseph Church, Winslow, as deacon and subdeacon; Fr. Barnabas Meyer, of Jemez, New Mexico and Fr. Marcellus Troester, of St. Michaels, were deacons of honor. Also present in the sanctuary were: Fr. Celestine Matz, of St. Michaels and Brother Fidelis Koper, of Chinle. Fr. Theodore Stephan, of Pena Blanca, New Mexico, presided at the organ for the choir composed of Ft. Defiance pupils who had been trained by Mrs. Edna Wigglesworth, wife of the Agency physician. Fr. Egbert was master of ceremonies. The festive sermon was delivered by Fr. Fridolin.

After the Mass the Bishop spoke briefly commending Fr. Egbert’s zealous work, praising the splendid Indian choir and noting the marvelous progress of the Church at Ft. Defiance since his first visit in 1912. Then followed the Confirmation of a class of 81 pupils.

A sumptuous turkey dinner was then served for all the guests by Catholic ladies of the “Fort” with the compliments of Superintendent Peter Paquette.

Firsts at Fort Defiance Mission

April 3, 1902 – Religious Instructions (non-sectarian) – Fr. Leopold, O.F.M.

Sept. 7, 1902 – Mass – Fr. Leopold

Feb. 7, 1911 – Catholic Instruction – Fr. Anselm Weber, O.F.M.

Dec. 7, 1911 – Baptism – Ambrose Jessie Davis, who died January 3, 1912 and was buried in St. Michael School Cemetery.

April 28, 1912 – Baptism Class – 17 girls and 5 boys. At St. Michael School.

April 29, 1912 – First Communion Class. Same as above. At St. Michael School.

June 16, 1912 – Confirmation Class – 89 confirmed in Fort Defiance Assembly Hall by Bishop Henry Granjon.

Jan, 19, 1913 – Catholic Wedding – John Watchman and Emma Atsidilthchee by Fr. Egbert in Assembly Hall.

Baptism Classes in 1912

April 19, 1912 – 5 Boys and 17 Girls

May 19, 1912 – 24 Boys and 14 Girls

June 9, 1912 – 20 Boys and 7 Girls

October 27, 1912 – 16 Boys and 7 Girls

December 8, 1912 – 3 Boys and 5 Girls

68 Boys and 50 Girls – Total 118

Meager sources of information on the early years of the Fort Defiance Mission indicate that Fr. Leopold Ostermann, who gave the first non-sectarian instructions there on April 3, 1902, was the first friar in charge. When Fr. Leopold took up residence in Chinle in August, 1904, it appears that Fr. Anselm Weber succeeded him and it is likely that other friars, among them Fr. Berard Haile, assisted in the regular catechism classes at Fort Defiance until the arrival of Fr. Egbert Fischer, who was assigned to this work in the summer of 1911. Fr. Egbert remained until 1916.

Innovations and Progress

In the beginning the church was lighted with gas mantles fueled from a generator located in the boiler room and a pressure tank outside the rear of the building. About the year 1920 Fr. Emmanuel and Brother Julian Elpers installed electric lights. In 1927 Fr. Ludger had a small section of the basement excavated to make room for a hot water heating system to replace the original vacuum low-pressure plant which had all along proven inefficient.

In 1944 Fr. Elmer Korty undertook further excavation of the basement to provide much needed meeting rooms. On Feb. 11, 1953 a still more extensive operation was begun, involving excavation of the entire space beneath the Church, the placement of steel jacks for support and the laying of a concrete floor.

Inside the church at Fort Defiance.

Inside the church at Fort Defiance.

By the time that Fr. Gale came to Ft. Defiance in the summer of 1949, work in the fast growing mission and at the hospital already required the constant presence of a priest. After more than two years of daily commuting between St. Michaels and the Fort, Fr. Gale took up residence in the small room at the rear of the Church. This arrangement of living and having an office in such cramped quarters was very inconvenient and unsatisfactory and in 1954 a residence, including office, bedroom, kitchen, bath and garage, was joined to the rear of the church. Thus father’s work was greatly expedited and he was enabled to answer more promptly the many calls from the 200 bed hospital and the 100 bed sanitorium nearby.

Meantime, the depression west of the church, along the bank of Bonito Creek, was gradually being filled in, with the hope that someday the physical plant of the mission could be further expanded. This dream was actually realized in the summer of 1965 when a large community hall and recreation center was completed.

A few items of note might be mentioned. A mission, the first of its kind on the reservation, was conducted from Nov. 2 to Nov. 9, 1952, by Father Eugene Rousseau, O.F.M. Work was begun on the Sawmill Church, a quonset building, on March 20th, 1953, and the first Mass was said in the new church on Nov. 29, 1953. In September of 1956 the entire church at Ft. Defiance was redecorated by Mr. Harry Boberg. In February of 1957 the entire church was laid with tile. In July of 1958 the whole church was repointed by a Zuni Indian who did a very fine job. On April 9, 1960 a new electric Wurlitzer organ was installed in the church. On June 12th, 1961 official word was received that Ft. Defiance had been created a separate parish with Rev. Gale J. Grieshop O.F.M., as its first pastor. On Aug. 5, 1963 Rev. Lawrence Schreiber, O.F.M. was appointed the first assistant to the Ft. Defiance Parish. His main task is to take care of Sawmill, Arizona and the new community at Navajo, N. Mex. During the summer of 1964, all the pews in the Church were sanded and refinished partly by volunteer help and partly by hiring several boys to work on them constantly.

Shrine to Mary near Ft. Defiance.

Shrine to Mary near Ft. Defiance.

On Sunday October 2, 1964 the new church and hall at Navajo, N. Mex., was dedicated by Most Rev. Bernard T. Espelage, O.F.M., D.D. at 4 P.M. The Redlake Chapter of Indians furnished the barbeque lunch for all the people present. Priest and Brothers were served steak dinners at the new cafe at Henry’s Corner in Ft. Defiance.

In conclusion, it might be mentioned that Ft. Defiance Parish has grown steadily through the years. And it is still growing so that eventually it might become one of the better parishes of the diocese and province. One fact alone, that of the total number of baptisms, 4,567, makes all the labors of the many missionaries who have labored in the fertile field worth while. Through the years the missionaries have brought many people into the world spiritually and have prepared them to meet their Maker, as we witness the many people lying in the government cemetery to the south of Ft. Defiance.

For many years prior to the completion of St. Dominic Savio Hall, a definite need was felt in the community for a community center. For five years a committee of five Indians and four white people met, planned and drew up sketches for such an undertaking. Eventually the whole idea was dropped by the community.

Meantime, whenever possible, the depression or arroyo next to the church was gradually being filled in. The first big boost came when the government boarding school was condemned and all the buildings torn down. All the refuse, stone, brick, etc. was dumped into the depression. This happened in 1955. In the ensuing years, the old Presbyterian church was also torn down and everything dumped into the depression. Tribal heavy equipment was also used on occasion to help in this task of reclaiming some of the land adjacent to the Church.

In April of 1964, plans were laid for a fundraising campaign to defray the cost of a new parish hall. Through the help of the Bishop who granted the parish $10,000, the Province, who loaned the parish $20,000, and other sources of income, the dream of this new project began to take shape. Plans were drawn up by Hunt Building Mart, of Albuquerque, N. Mex., and the actual contract was signed on April 12, 1965.

Shortly after the signing of the contract, actual work began on the ground in preparation for the foundation. Tribal equipment was used to excavate and compact the ground to make it sound enough for the new structure. The first pouring of cement took place on May 6, 1965 and was completed on May 14, 1965. Actual construction of the building began on June 1, 1965 and was completed on August 31, 1965, when the building was accepted from Hunt Building Mart.

Fort Defiance Celebrates Jubilee

Sr. Mary Hottenroth writes of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the church at Fort Defiance.

“The feast of Christ the King marked the beginning of the Jubilee Year at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church. To initiate this year parishioners walked in procession with the Blessed Sacrament in church after Mass . This was followed by Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and prayers in thanksgiving for the past 100 years to ask for continued blessings on our parish.

The Jubilee Year will close with celebrations on Nov. 25 and 26, 2015 including a Mass celebrated by Bishop Wall on Thanksgiving Day. This will mark the 100th anniversary of he solemn dedication of the church of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament which took place on Thanksgiving Day, November 15, 1915.”


Text for this history was taken from several books compiled for the 50th anniversary of the church at Fort Defiance.

Image credit:

Diocesan archives
Wikimedia Commons
The Franciscan Missions of the Southwest